Justice — 28 November 2012
Capital News Service

BALTIMORE – A new center designed to provide a safe and supervised place for the children of domestic violence victims to visit with their parents opened Tuesday in Baltimore.

The “Safe Havens” center allows children to see parents under the supervision of a third-party moderator.

The Office for Violence Against Women funded the center through the “Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program.” The center will focus specifically on families dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, child abuse or stalking.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the opening of the new center at The Family Tree, a child abuse prevention organization and the home of the new center.

Lisa Fink, center director for Baltimore City’s Visitation Centers, said there are many visitation centers throughout the city, but none with a domestic violence focus. Other centers are typically designed for court-mandated visits between parents and children of families going through separation or divorce.

“This model is specifically focused on safety” and “promoting healthy relationships while ensuring safety,” Fink said.

Fink said the center will differ from others in that it will allow for parents to maintain a relationship with their children after a separation, while maintaining the safety of the victim of abuse.

Bea Hanson, acting director for the Office of Violence Against Women, said the time after a couple separates can be when the most abuse occurs.

“We know that the risk of violence is substantially greater for victims after they leave the abusive relationship,” Hanson said. “The potential for further abuse escalates when the victimized parent has to come face-to-face with their abuser, and that often happens in the situations of exchange and visitation.”

The new center will provide a third-party supervisor to diffuse that potential violence.

Gat Meredith knows this post-separation abuse all too well. Her 37-year-old daughter, Jessica Jacobsen, was murdered in 2007. Jacobsen’s ex-husband shot and killed her in front of their two boys when he came to pick them up from her house for the weekend.

“When she came out, he shot her twice in front of the boys,” Meredith said. “No one should have to be a witness to that, especially a child.”

Meredith is encouraged by the opening of the Safe Havens center because of her family’s tragic experience with domestic violence.

“You’ve got to take those negatives and turn them around,” Meredith said. “If one child, just one, comes here and doesn’t have the experience that my grandsons had, it will all be worth it.”

Meredith said her daughter “would be so happy” if she were there and knew that a place like the Safe Havens center was being made available.

Advocacy against domestic violence is a personal issue for Brown, whose cousin, Cathy Brown, was murdered by her estranged boyfriend in 2008. His personal experience is what led him to support the effort to create a visitation center specifically focusing on victims of domestic violence.

Brown said the number of annual deaths related to domestic violence is down 11 percent since 2006. He said that even one death is too many and that he hopes to continue the effort to support families combating domestic violence.

“I think that opening the center today is a real acknowledgement that domestic violence knows no boundaries,” Brown said. “We acknowledge that the entire community, we collectively have a responsibility to break the cycle of domestic violence…together we have a responsibility to protect all of our families.”

Once the center is fully opened, it will be able to provide supervised visitation services to up to 28 families at a time.

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About the Author

Julie Baughman is a senior undergraduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She interned at The Prince George’s Sentinel, as well as at the metro desk of The Baltimore Sun. Baughman will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.